(OSV News) — A Catholic parish priest accused of “offending state authorities” in Belarus said he understood the hardships facing prisoners of conscience after just four days in jail.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone — not a single hour in such a place,” said Father Andrej Kulik, rector of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish at Miory. “Many of my colleagues have sat in prison for various concocted reasons in recent decades, not just here in Belarus, and it made no difference that I was a Catholic priest.”
The 44-year-old pastor spoke after being arrested May 25 with two other clergy in the eastern Vitebsk Diocese in connection with social media posts.
In an OSV News interview, he said he had been allowed to return home May 28. He hasn’t been charged with anything and his case was sent for revision.
“My parish prayed for me, while my bishop requested my release and said he had discussed my case with state representatives and the Vatican nunciature,” said Father Kulik, one of 57 priests serving the Vitebsk Diocese’s 94 Catholic parishes.
“While the accusations against us are often similar, the details of each case are different. But prison isn’t a place where anyone should be.”
Belarus’s opposition-linked Christian Vision group said police had confiscated computers and mobile phones while detaining Father Kulik, along with Father Vyacheslav Adamovich, from the nearby Our Lady of the Scapular Parish, who was freed June 1.
A third priest, Father Alexander Shautsov, from the country’s small Greek Catholic community, was given a 15-day jail term at his Polotsk parish for “spreading extremist material and violating public order,” but had his sentence extended June 2 to 45 days, according to Christian Vision.
The Belarus bishops’ spokesman, Father Yuri Sanko, confirmed to OSV News that Bishop Aleh Butkevich of Vitebsk, who chairs the bishops’ conference, had tried “to ensure they were not abandoned,” speaking about priests who face charges or arrest by the state.
Christian Vision said a former Catholic seminarian, Vladislav Beloded, who leads catechism classes at Minsk’s archcathedral, had been subjected to “inhuman and degrading treatment” for alleged homosexuality after being sentenced to 15 days detention May 31 for “distributing extremist materials.” During the protests in 2020, he was engaging in public prayers with protesters.
Meanwhile, church sources said a 4,000-strong unofficial Catholic prayer and discussion group, “Catholics of Belarus,” had been blocked by the Russian social network Odnoklassniki on June 6, for “violating rules” of the platform, which is governed by Russian law.
A prominent lay Catholic said no details had been given of the accusations against the priests, but added that article 19 of the country’s Administrative Code made it a serious offense to like, repost or comment on any social media content deemed extremist by the regime officials.
“Although Belarus’s Catholic bishops are speaking with the authorities, they’re not saying anything publicly on issues like this, while it’s become their modus operandi never to criticize the government,” said Artiom Tkaczuk, a Catholic social worker now living in neighboring Poland.
“It’s difficult to obtain any information since people are afraid to say anything, even privately, for fear of causing offense and ending up in prison,” he said.
The Catholic Church, whose members make up around 15% of Belarus’ population of 9.4 million, has sided with protesters in the outbreak of political unrest after the August 2020 reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, accepting protesters in churches. However, the church has not reacted publicly to the mistreatment of citizens. The Aug. 9 election handed Lukashenko a sixth straight presidential term. The Belarusian Orthodox Church supports the regime.
Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, listed 11 Catholic priests who were arrested in 2022, mostly for protesting the war in Ukraine.
In a May report, however, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said conditions were worsening for Christians in Belarus, despite the lack of public pushback against the government by church leaders.
Clergy arrests were not mentioned in the official communique from a May 22 Minsk meeting between Foreign Minister Sergei Alejnik and the Vatican’s nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic, which said both sides had agreed to continue “active cooperation” and “an open and mutually respectful dialogue.”
Meanwhile, Father Sanko, the bishops’ spokesman, said the church’s news website, Catholic.by, also had decided not to report the latest arrests, considering them “too delicate to publicize.”
Among other recent moves, an elderly Polish parish priest, Father Jozef Geza, was ordered out of Belarus without explanation in January, and a Greek Catholic journal closed after its editor was jailed for “disseminating extremist materials.”
Church sources said broadcasts of Sunday Mass on state radio, which are important for the elderly and those who are sick, also were sometimes interrupted. Since Easter, broadcasts of the Mass on the church’s YouTube channel had been stopped. Father Sanko said this was due to “technical problems.”
They added that the church’s traditional June 11 Corpus Christi procession had been barred from stopping at Minsk’s landmark Church of Sts. Simon and Helena, also known as the Red Church, which was locked and stripped of sacred objects by officials after a suspicious minor fire there last September.
On May 31, a 26-year-old priest, Father Dmitry Malets, was allowed to return to St. Michael the Archangel’s Parish at Novogrudok, two weeks after he was ordered to report for the spring draft.
In his OSV News interview, Tkaczuk said Father Malets’ summons had raised fears that other clergy could be denied a customary reprieve from military service, adding that regime officials routinely intimidated the bishops with talk of police surveillance.
“The whole church has become a toy in the hands of Lukashenka, who has sowed fear by suggesting what’s happening to other members of society may also happen to Catholic priests,” the exiled Catholic told OSV News. “It constantly reminds the church it has no official dispensations, and is likely to use this as an instrument of growing pressure.”
The Viasna (“Spring” in Belarusian) human rights group’s latest figure of political prisoners in Belarus is 1,513.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.